Making Marion County

By Jean Hardiman

Photo by Marion County CVB.

Marion County is filled with points of pride. It’s home to the I-79 Technology Park and Fairmont State University and it’s just minutes from West Virginia University in neighboring Monongalia County.

Located along a beautiful drive on I-79, there are several gorgeous options for outdoor recreation, from cycling, fishing and kayaking to enjoying a concert in the park.

While Marion County is thriving, there is always room for growth. Several forward-thinkers in Marion County are working toward progress in a number of ways, like research and technology, mixed-use property development and out­door recreation. A solar test bed project, a new weather station that will track weather conditions in space and a transportation research campus are among the exciting advancements coming to the county. Combine that with the excitement of the new Middletown Commons as well as expansion efforts at Palatine Park and new trails for outdoor enthusiasts, and it’s an exciting time to be in North Central West Virginia.

Research and Technology

For a number of years, Marion County has been a hub for technology, thanks in large part to the efforts of the High Technology Foundation, which has worked to build West Virginia’s knowledge sector and diversify its economy.

Some of the federal operations already located there are the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), U.S. Department of Commerce, National Aeronautics and Space Administration and Federal Bureau of Investigation. The organizations that choose to establish locations in the I-79 Technology Park are breaking ground in fields ranging from energy to health care administration to white-collar crime.

According to Jim Estep, president and CEO of the High Technology Foundation, an exciting newcomer to the park is a solar test bed project. It comes after the passage of Senate Bill 583 by the West Virginia Legislature in 2020, which established a solar utility program in the state.

“The purpose of the solar test bed project is to conduct research and development that will build upon the momentum generated from this legislation to accelerate the deployment of large-scale solar technology in North Central West Virginia,” Estep says. “I believe it’s important for us to demonstrate that we understand the importance of renewable energy to the knowledge sector and are leaning forward to not only catch up but to be a leader and contribute to the transition,” says Estep.

Estep believes building the foundation for a viable knowledge sector in West Virginia positions Marion County for growth.

“The I-70 Technology Park has grown to be nationally competitive, especially in terms of power and telecommunications. This provides a number of ancillary benefits for the Marion County business community,” he says.

Also in the works is a third weather station for NOAA, which will be launching a new satellite called Space Weather Follow On-Lagrange 1 (SWFO-L1) around February 2025. The I-79 Technology Park will be home to this satellite program’s ground station.

“The purpose of the SWFO-L1 is to study and monitor solar storms, in part, to help protect the Earth’s rapidly expanding telecommunications network,” Estep says.

It will be a partnership with L3Harris Corporation, which won a $43.8 million command and control contract in February 2021. The SWFO-L1 ground station will join two other satellite ground stations already located at the I-79 Technology Park. Also stationed at the park is the Joint Polar Satellite System, a fleet of advanced polar-orbiting environmental satellites.

“There is no other location on the planet that has three climate and weather satellite ground stations collocated with one of the most advanced supercom­puting centers on the planet,” Estep says. “This makes the I-79 Technology Park and North Central West Virginia a prime location for the growth of the multibillion-dollar commercial climate and weather industry. This represents a powerful economic development opportunity for West Virginia.”

On the horizon in Marion County is the development of the Fairmont Transportation Research Campus (FTRC), a concept that was originated by the Marion Regional Development Corporation. The campus is an adaptive reuse of the former Sharon Steel and Big John’s Salvage sites in Fairmont and totals 144 acres. The FTRC project involves the development of an academic research center, as well as testing, performance and training facilities and components for the public sector and motorsports enthusiasts.

“Through the collaboration with West Virginia University’s Encova Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, a full development plan has been prepared that highlights a multitiered approach to the concept of attracting automotive industry stakeholders and enthusiasts that include academia, government, defense and public safety,” says Allen Staggers, executive director of the Marion Regional Development Corporation. “The FTRC will leverage the opportunity of housing a research facility on an independent site to attract partners from the global automotive industry to West Virginia for research, testing, calibration and validation.”

There are already automotive companies that do work in West Virginia and could utilize the multipurpose campus for a variety of testing purposes, says Staggers, adding that its location within 500 miles of over 15 major U.S. markets should be beneficial as well.

“The development of driver assist systems and autonomous vehicles is receiving substantial attention,” Staggers says. “Autonomous vehicles hold the promise of enhanced safety as well as improved efficiency in transportation of people and goods.”

When the testing track is idle on weekends, a motorsports venue will create new destination tourism.

“The FTRC will provide Marion County and the state of West Virginia a unique opportunity to diversify the economy and attract new jobs and investment,” Staggers says. “The adaptive reuse of the Sharon Steel site will transform the former superfund site into an automotive industry-related business park unlike anything in the state.

Growth and Development

“Marion County is uniquely positioned for growth,” says David Reitz, president of Stella Construction.

Reitz is working on the anticipated commercial development Middletown Commons, bringing new dining, shopping and office space to the county.

As far as what makes Middletown Commons an exciting development project, the answers are many.

“Middletown Commons will be the area’s premier mixed-use commercial development,” says Jonathan Howard, an associate at Premier Commercial. “This is a significant redevelopment for Marion County because it is bringing new national businesses to the county, helping spur the creation of more local business and last but certainly not least, adding another top-of-the-line medical facility to provide care for the community.”

Mon Health Marion Neighborhood Hospital will be located in the develop­ment, enhancing the excellent health care in the area. Marion County is already home to WVU Medicine’s Fairmont Medical Center.

Meanwhile, a $77.5 million interstate-widening project is coming to Marion County. The project aims to improve traffic flow and safety on I-79.

“In addition, the improvements to the South Fairmont Exit will enhance traffic flow and accessibility in the White Hall area, which is seeing continued growth,” Staggers says.

Downtown Fairmont is part of the growth as well.

“There has been a positive trend in the revitalization of downtown over the last year,” says Dan Swiger, executive director of Main Street Fairmont. “In the first five months of the year, we’ve seen five new businesses enter the historic downtown footprint. We have also been able to sell one of the vacant buildings on Monroe Street to Loving WV, which, after building restoration, will relocate their headquarters to downtown Fairmont.”

Outdoor Recreation

While Marion County is an epicenter for research and technology and is seeing a variety of infrastructural developments, its outdoor recreation scene is not to be underrated.

“Marion County is in the middle of everywhere, with two state parks, outdoor music venues, long-standing fairs and festivals, river trails, an extensive park and rail-trail system, public pools, disc golf, miniature golf and traditional golf courses,” says Leisha Elliott, executive director of the Marion County Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Trail development has been a big focus for Marion County in recent years.

“Rail-trail use continues to grow in popularity and brings people to Marion County,” she says. “The Marion County Parks & Recreation Commission, City of Fairmont, Mon River Trails Conservancy and the newly formed Mountaineer Trail Network Recreation Authority continue their work to construct, manage and maintain rail trails in the county.”

Elliott is also excited about expansions at Palatine Park.

“Not only is this becoming a premier destination for great music, but the series of quality-of-life upgrades—such as shaded seating, boat launches and picnic areas—enhance outdoor activities even more,” she says.

Marion County is home to Valley Falls State Park, which continues to attract visitors from all over the country.

“Not only does the park offer the perfect backdrop to a laid-back day by the river, but it is also a favorite desti­nation for outdoor enthusiasts,” Elliott says. “Eight hiking trails vary in difficulty, from beginner-level paths to steep climbs for veteran explorers. The trails are also open to mountain biking enthusiasts. Valley Falls State Park is also a favorite spot for fishing and kayaking.”

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